Biography of Robert Burns - Poet of Scotland
Scots around the world celebrate January 25 (Rabbie's birthday, born in 1759) with a Burns Night Supper, revolving around the haggis (To A Haggis), the whisky, and the toasts to the lassies. This has been going on since Burns' death over 200 years ago and, along with our singing of Auld Lang Syne each New Year's Eve, indicates the tremendous impact this young roué and some-time farmer has had on his country and culture.
Robert Burns grew up poor, his father a struggling Ayrshire farmer who did his best to educate his bright and lively son even though not many years could be spent at school. Still, Burns was a reader and learnt not only the ins and outs of his own language, but English as well (and some French).
His English poetry is considered "okay" but not especially inspired. Rather, Robert Burns achieved immortality through his almost single-handed efforts to reinvigorate the Scottish vernacular through his wonderful poetry and his rescue of hundreds of the folk songs of Scotland.
Robert Burns' poetry revolves around country and town life, the life he knew. He wrote satires about the "high and mighty", particularly the self-righteous and the tyranny of the kirk (Address to the Unco Guid). He composed beautiful love poems (Jean), some tender, some sassy, about the many women he loved. He wrote with affection, respect and often high humor (Tam o' Shanter) about country folk and their lives. He had a heart for the wee-est of creatures (To a Mouse, To a Louse) - and could compose at the drop of a hat.
Chiefly, his did immeasurable service to Scotland by reviving and rewriting dozens upon dozens of Scottish folk songs - taking the old tunes as he had learnt them, drawing upon memory for a glimpse of what they'd been about, taking perhaps a phrase or stanza, and then rewriting the songs with his own lyrics - an incredible achievement which revitalized Scottish culture and pride (at a time when it was much needed and to this very day).
Alas, no one is talented in every direction (especially famous poets, it seems). Burns failed at farming and, indeed, at every occupation he tried (aside from writing). In desperation, he published a book of his poems in 1786 and achieved an unexpected success. Unfortunately, the proceeds were ultimately used up when invested in farms that failed. Discouraged and dissipated (ah, yes, that good old-fashioned word), Burns died at the age of 37, having gone against his doctor's advice to give up the drink.
Had it not been for his extraordinary genius, he might have lived and died a typical ne'er-do-well. Fondness for the ladies, without benefit of clergy (he did finally marry Jean Armour - after they'd had four children), fondness for drink, and a complete lack of business sense have been the downfall of many a charming young man.
But Rabbie Burns was more than charming, more than handsome. He had a genuine love for people, a real respect for the down-and-outers of the world, and he really did love all those ladies (and they loved him back). He worked extremely hard at his poetry and his songs (for which he never accepted a penny, he considered the songs his gift to the Scottish people). This generosity of spirit marks what is best in the heart of man, and that is why the Scots took Rabbie Burns into their hearts and why we take him into ours.
Here is one of Robert Burn's most famous love poems:
O my luve is like a red, red rose,
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
The words to Scots Wha Hae (Bruce's March to Bannockburn) can be found on the Robert the Bruce page.
Books about Robert Burns and his poetry and songs:
The Canongate Burns - At well over 1000 pages, this is the complete Burns, including the "sexy" poems (Merry Muses), copious biographical notes, and a comprehensive glossary of Scottish terms. Not as pricey as you might expect.
Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns
by Robert Burns
As the title says - Burns' poems and song lyrics. Burns wrote the lyrics for many popular Scottish folk tunes.
The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography
by Robert Crawford
Excellent and lively biography of Burns, drawing on a wide variety of sources, some of them only recently discovered.
Burns Supper Companion
by Nancy Marshall
The perfect guide and companion to celebrating your own highly successful Burns' Night Supper.
A Night Out with Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems
Compilation and commentary by Andrew O'Hagen
Acclaimed novelist O'Hagen selects and discusses some of Robert Burns' greatest poems, divided generally into four categories. A must-have for any Burns fan.
Ultimate Burns Supper Book
by Clark McGinn
Another excellent Burns' Supper Book - this one with less history and more on what to actually expect from a Burns Night Supper, whether as guest, host or participant. Mr. McGinn has performed at numerous suppers and knows his stuff.
Robert Burns in Your Pocket: A Biography, and Selected Poems and Songs, of Scotland's National Poet
by Robert Burns
A short biography, a selection of his best-known poems, along with explanations of the poem's settings and translations of the difficult words in the Scots dialect. A good introduction for those new to Burns.